This weekend I kicked the prep for the upcoming Sugar Town into high gear and getting so excited to celebrate the ladies of classic soul and r&b as we launch into Women's History Month. I've been gathering all kinds of fresh 45s for this event and I can't wait to share them with you!
This will be the 4th edition of the Ladies of Classic Soul version of Sugar Town, but I've been throwing versions of this party since 1996. The record of the day is one of the recordings that's been a go-to for me since the early years. It lives up to it's name as a real scorcher written and performed by Varetta Dillard on this day in 1959.
Varetta was born in Harlem in 1933. She enjoyed moderate success in the mid-1950s, and from the beginning was promoted as a "rock n roll" artist by the legendary DJ Alan Freed (who coined the term "rock n roll"). In fact, Freed included Ms. Dillard in his very first presentation of a rock n roll revue concert in 1952.
Though Varetta's name had largely been missing in the pages of rock 'n' roll and r&b history, today her music is finding a wider audience and a handful of her records are highly sought after by DJs of vintage soul.
Join me at The Spare Room on March 7th to celebrate the music and lives of more ladies of vintage soul and R&B. AND get warmed up for the event by listening to this red hot R&B!
I'm getting so excited about my Foot Stompin' party (happening tomorrow night 1/29) at Dig A Pony! I'll be debuting this little treasure which I finally acquired after a lengthy hunt.
Margie Day passed away this past September after a lifetime dedicated to the arts. Her most recent years were spent acting as the Executive Director of an non-profit she established to cultivate the artistic talents of children in Norfolk, Virginia (where she grew up).
Early in her professional music career she sang vocals for legendary R&B band leaders like the Griffin Brothers, Floyd Dixon, and Paul Hucklebuck Williams before launching her own solo career in the mid-1950s. That's when this record was recorded for Atlantic's subsidiary Cat Records.
Here we have an unusual fusion of R&B and country. How often to you hear a jaw harp on an R&B record? Any time these two musical worlds come together, my heart tends to flutter a little bit. I've played the country bop cover of this at QCJ, but it took a long time to get my hands on the original. This record wasn't a hit when originally released, but I'm determined to make it a smash sensation on the dance floors of Portland starting tomorrow night!
Born on this day in 1927, Willie Mae Thornton would become one of the most revered and unique women in early rock n roll. It’s widely agreed that drag-dressing Big Mama Thornton was likely a queer ahead of her time. Although, it can’t be denied that she followed a long tradition of lezzie blues singers(Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Alberta Hunter, etc) including the "bulldagger" Gladys Bentley.
The tragedy of her story has captivated followers of rock ‘n’ roll history. She has become the poster child for Black artists who were screwed over by the music industry. Her biggest hit “Hound Dog” earned her a mere $500 in 1952 (roughly $4000 today) as she never earned any royalties beyond her initial payment. To add insult to injury, her version was overshadowed in R&R history for decades due to the far surpassing popularity of Elvis Presley’s 1956 version. The same thing happened with Janis Joplin’s cover of Big Mama’s “Ball n Chain”.
Legend has it that she “died alone and penniless” after years of alcohol abuse, no doubt a result of frustrations and tribulations with the music industry and possibly her struggle with her sexual identity.
Of course today she is celebrated as a queer pioneer who bravely smashed expectations of what was acceptable attire for a lady entertainer.
The Record of the Day is Big Mama's nod to one of her inspirations, Memphis Minnie (a pioneer in her own right). This song was written by Minnie's husband and musical partner Little Son Joe and was originally recorded by Minnie In Chicago in 1941. It has since become a bit of a blues standard.
Big Mama's EXPLOSIVE rock 'n' soul version is from 1965. It took YEARS for me to find an affordable copy. I finally was able to debut it at the last Sugar Town. Dream come true!
It's my favorite time of the year, MASHED POTATO SEASON! In honor of that most delicious of mushy starches, I thought I'd feature what is currently my favorite mashed potato dance record. This was gifted to me by my dear friend and sometimes DJ partner, Wild Man James. How could I not love a girl group named in honor of Carrie Grant?! There are a couple of on-line sources that say that it's Bill Haley & the Comets backing Carrie on this cut. Of course, you can't believe everything you read on the internet, but if it's true then this is by far the best Bill Haley and the Comets record ever. It's a high kilowatt workout, able to power any Cuisinart mashing your potatoes this holiday weekend.
So pour some gravy on it and get all kinds of sloppy with me!
My love and respect for LaVern Baker is so big, I find myself challenged to find the words to accurately express my feelings. She was a pioneer in multiple ways, being a top R&B artist prior to exploding into a hugely successful career as one of the first female stars of rock n roll. She was also one of the first victims of "whitewashing", a practice in which Black artists' records were covered note for note by white artists for "safer" airplay. LaVern fought this musical thievery all the way to the supreme court. Although she lost her legal battle, she won the war in the eyes of history. Today any music fan worth their weight in vinyl views Georgia Gibbs (the woman who ripped off three LaVern Baker records) as a hack, while LaVern has been crowned the Empress of Rock n Roll and the 2nd woman to be inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
So on this 85th anniversary of her birth, I'm making "Trouble In Mind" by LaVern Baker the Record of the Day. It's a good representation of the way she approached life and the many struggles she faced. I also think it's a nice tribute to the classic blues singers who preceded her. The song was originally recorded in 1924 by Thelma La Vizzo and became a standard of the classic blues genre recorded by Georgia White and Victoria Spivey in the 1930s, Rosetta Tharpe and Julia Lee in the 40s, and Dinah Washington in the 1950s (among countless others). I appreciate this record as a thread tying LaVern to the powerhouse female performers who paved the way for her. In turn, she would pave the way for so many more women who followed in her footsteps.
Listen to LaVern carry the song into the rock n roll/early soul era with gusto! Admittedly, it follows the formula of Baker's previously released updated version of "See See Rider", but it's still a solid side all on its own!
*** Also worth noting on this Veteran's Day, LaVern's career in the States was brought to an abrupt end while traveling with a USO show in Vietnam. It's a pretty interesting story actually. There are a couple of versions online that state that Baker divorced her husband prior to joining the tour, however Bio.com tells a different story (also featured in the book Icons of R&B) :
In 1966, LaVern Baker traveled to Vietnam for a USO tour to entertain American troops. She fell ill with pneumonia early in her trip but continued performing until her lung collapsed. Baker was immediately airlifted to a hospital in Thailand where she spent three months recuperating. By this point, in early 1967, her USO tour had returned to the United States leaving Baker alone in Thailand with no American contacts. She described the fantastical saga that ensued: "I didn't know what to do, who to go to. The tour was gone and I was in a strange country where telephone service was practically nonexistent. I hitched with farmers on wagons to Bangkok…. I'd had to slog through rice paddies in water up to my shoulders in some places to get to Bangkok, so by the time the Marines got me to the base I'd had a relapse." She was then airlifted to a hospital in the Philippines where she spent another four months recovering.
In the meantime, Baker's husband, a comedian named Slappy White whom she married in 1961, had given her up for dead. He had her death declared official, got a divorce and assumed managing rights to Baker's entire portfolio of songs. Baker described her efforts to contact her husband from the Philippines: "I tried and tried to call my husband, but never got through. I don't know to this day if it was the radio system or he just wasn't answering or what… For all I know he heard my voice and hung up. Probably did, the no-good &%@S#!!" Eventually, Baker decided to embrace her situation and make a new life for herself running a nightclub in Olongapo City in the Philippines. She lived there for 21 years until finally deciding to return to the United States in 1988.
On this day in R&B history in 1954, "Oop Shoop" by Shirley Gunter and the Queens of LA entered the r&b charts. It was the first record by an all female R&B group to chart. At the time it was declared a new example of a "rock n roll record" by legendary DJ Alan Freed. Because of this, Shirley is considered one of the first women in rock 'n' roll. Has she been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? No, but her brother was as a member of The Coasters. Shirley Gunter - One of the innumerable under-appreciated trailblazing ladies of rhythm & blues.
DJ Action Slacks
I'm excited to highlight some of my favorite records in a variety of genres (soul, R&B, classic country, rockabilly, oldies, garage rock, etc). These won't all necessarily be "dance" records per se. They will all be records that I believe deserve a special listen. I simply love good music, rare or not. Hopefully you will spend some time here and love music right along with me! Lets give this a shot!